THE ESCAPEES (1981) Blu-ray
Director: Jean Rollin
Redemption/Kino Lorber

Stepping away, albeit momentarily, from dreamlike tales of the undead, Jean Rollin takes a stab at the thriller genre with Les paumées du petit matin (THE ESCAPEES), the story of two asylum escapees and the numerous characters and quandaries that populate their journey. Filmed shortly after La nuit des traquées (THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTED), THE ESCAPEES finds Rollin slightly out of his element. In an attempt to touch-up dialogue and heighten the picture's tension, Rollin’s original script was handed over to another writer, Jacques Ralf. Ralf's take on the material was however considered daft by Rollin in comparison to his original outline, so he decided to incorporate elements of both scripts during the film's shoot. The result is a disjointed chase film that makes too many pit stops and fails to capture the sense of otherworldly wonder characteristic of the auteur's more celebrated work.

Within minutes of being thrown into a mental institution, Michelle (Laurence Dubas, OH, WOE IS ME) wastes no time in planning her escape, and with three previous unsuccessful attempts already behind her, she is bound and determined to make her fourth attempt her last. With the help of a Marie (Christiane Coppe), a near comatose fellow inmate, Michelle breaks out of the asylum and heads out across the French countryside with her reluctant new friend in tow. Making their way to the highway the duo is quick to find sanctuary, stumbling upon a traveling burlesque group en-route to their latest gig. Setting their stage on the edge of junkyard, the troupe entertains the local riffraff and docked sailors with the repetitive undulations of a duo of exotic dancers. Enlisting Michelle and Marie to serve drinks, the pair is introduced to Sophie (Marianne Valiot), a rebellious spirit who is enjoying the night’s festivities with her sailor beau. The revue is eventually broken up, leaving all involved to scatter and Michelle and Marie under the care and watchful eye of the insubordinate Sophie. Between jobs stealing undergarments from shipping yards and contemplating the life of a stowaway, the group spends the majority of their time at Madame Louise’s (Louise Dhour, DEMONIACS), a dockside hole in the wall accustom to patrons who wish to hide from the prying eyes of the rest of the world. Seeking to run away with her new friends, Sophie convinces her lover, after a little naked coaxing, to hide Michelle and Marie on his ship destined for Brazil, all but ensuring a safe getaway for the pair. But an after party invitation given by a group of bushwa socialites proves too enticing and threatens the pair’s chances of meeting their scheduled departure.

With only a small number of outings outside of the horror genre, Jean Rollin’s THE ESCAPEES stands apart from the his usual oeuvre both in its lack, or at the very least subdued sense of fantasy, as well as its set pieces which are noticeably dissimilar to the rocky coastlines and baroque estates that predominantly landscape the director’s vision. Drab, desolate and industrial, the picture’s settings vary from damp, grey shipping yards to a railroad track adjacent to a junkyard that David Lynch would pay top dollar for. While he can’t help but throw in a couple of more traditional coastal and pub locations, the majority of the film takes place in real, yet often mangled, man-made setting. While such backdrops may have been chosen to help emphasize the film's thriller intentions, or could have been chosen as a simple means to cut corners by using readily available locations, the end result lends little to the film’s structure, which plays more like a series of vignettes than that of a unified narrative. One moment the young pair are attempting to steal dresses from a cloud covered dockyard and the next Marie is ice-skating by herself in an abandoned ice rink. How these scenes relate to each other is anyone’s guess. It’s possible that Marie’s ice rink escapades are meant to demonstrate that her character is only capable of feeling comfortable and content when alone, as opposed to being in the presence of a large group of people, say in a bar. But this is a Jean Rollin film; it’s also possible that at any given moment a clown might appear at random to deliver a bouquet of balloons to a lesbian vampire. However, in the constructs of fantastic cinema, it’s also possible for the latter to make sense. Well maybe not sense, but it is easier to swallow. Outside of fantasy, as is the case with THE ESCAPEES, such random occurrences feel disorganized and unfulfilling, even with the inclusion of all too brief flashes of a naked Brigitte Lahaie (FASCINATION).

Redemption USA previously released the film on DVD in 2009, in a slightly letterboxed non-anamorphic aspect ratio, and now revisits the title on Blu-ray (as well as a subsequent DVD using the same transfer) as distributed through Kino Lorber. The film is presented here in 1080p in a 1.78:1 aspect, and of course is a vast improvement over the older standard DVD offering, with an extreme increase in clarity. The transfer was made from the original elements, with the color palette looking bright and stable and black levels are deep. The contrast is also quite good, the grain is well-handled well and although slight specks and other dirt occasionally appear, it’s nothing too distracting. The audio comes in LPCM Mono track in the film's original French language, with optional English subtitles and the mix is perfectly serviceable with no noticeable faults to be found.

The sole extra on this release is a video interview with Rollin, shot at his home in Paris in December of 2008 and originally found on Redemption USA’s first DVD release. Surrounded by books and fascinating works of sculpture, Rollin (speaking some broken English but mainly French) delves into every aspect of THE ESCAPEES from its financing to its secondary cast, as well as a number of his other works including REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE and THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTED. In-depth and entertaining, particularly if you're a fan of the man and his work, this interview is one of the best the late director had done for a home video release. (Jason McElreath)